Over the last two decades, American presidential elections have all been relatively close. But with Donald Trump at the helm, the Republican Party faces the prospect of a historic landslide closer to the creamings received by Barry Goldwater in 1964 (who lost by 23.6 points), George McGovern in 1972 (24.2 percentage points), and Walter Mondale in 1984 (19.4 percentage points). At this point, the only real question appears to be how huge (or beautiful—pick your Trumpian adjective) the margin will be.
To lose by more than 10 percent in 2016, as Trump could easily do, would be a remarkable achievement of sorts, given how evenly split Americans have been in recent years and how reluctant they are to leave their preferred parties. The last election even approaching a landslide was in 1996, when Bill Clinton defeated Bob Dole by an eight-point margin. Since then, elections have been tight. Even in 2008, when the Democrats should by all rights have won massively—with Republicans dragged down by an unpopular war and the start of the biggest economic recession since 1929, and with John McCain facing the most talented politician of the last generation—Barack Obama’s victory was only by a 7-percent margin, which narrowed to four in 2012.
Trump seems destined to break this pattern—and if his campaign continues on its current trajectory, it’s not inconceivable that he could tally less that 40 percent of the vote, which no candidate has managed since George H.W Bush in 1992, 24 years ago, in a three-person race. This is only partially because Trump’s polling numbers have taken a dive recently; a recent Bloomberg poll shows Clinton enjoying a double-digit lead over Trump, getting 49 percent to his 37 percent. But the Bloomberg poll is only a snapshot of a moment, and poll numbers are likely to fluctuate as the race proceeds. The real reason to think Trump will tank in an historical way on election day has to do with the essential nature of the unorthodox campaign Trump is running, as against Clinton’s more traditional effort.
Clinton, whatever her flaws, is a mainstream politician who has a proven ability to raise huge amounts of money and enjoys broad support within her party. Despite the lingering frustrations of many Bernie Sanders’s supporters being reluctant to support her, Clinton’s recent upsurge in polling shows that she is already consolidating Democrats behind her.
Trump won’t have a solid Republican coalition behind him. When he became the presumptive Republican nominee six weeks ago, he briefly began consolidating Republican support, but that effort has now stalled and indeed is fraying, with two major party figures—Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois and Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin—backtracking from their earlier endorsements. As Kirk tweeted on June 7, “Given my military experience, Donald Trump does not have the temperament to command our military or our nuclear arsenal.”
Far from pivoting to the center and uniting the party around him as a normal candidate would do, Trump has spent the first big sprint of his campaign alienating the Republican elite by continuing with his overt racism (as in his attacks on Judge Gonzalo Curiel and renewed calls to ban Muslim immigrants), and engaging in conspiracy-mongering (suggesting that President Obama is asympathizer of Islamic terrorism).
Trump’s manic, narcissistic, and immature response to the Orlando massacre has been a key turning point—or, looked at another way, a final straw. Just as Republican elites were learning to live with Trump, so long as he kept his promise to act more “presidential,” he’s now made it clear that he’ll continue to be the same old Trump the world has known for decades. The result is that elected Republican officials are starting to un-endorse Trump or say they won’t back his presidential bid. Republican governors in Maryland, Michigan, and Massachusetts have all said they won’t vote for Trump.
Unable to work with the RNC and most elected officials, barely on speaking terms with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, the country’s most powerful Republican office-holder, Trump has to face the awesome task of running a national campaign with nothing more than his own political instincts and small staff of bootlickers who have shown no ability to rein in his worst tendencies. The results have been chaotic, in terms well described by Josh Marshall in Talking Points Memo:
Trump has the awesome task of running a national campaign with nothing more than his own political instincts and small staff of bootlickers who have shown no ability to reign in his worst tendencies.
There’s a Politico story out today about how the RNC gave him the names of twenty big GOP donors to call. He got bored or frustrated and stopped after calling three. And this comes after deciding that he actually doesn’t need to raise a billion dollars.
Almost every day since he clinched the nomination almost six weeks ago has been a surreal tour through Trump’s damaged psyche—the insecurities, silly feuds, the mix of self-serving lies and attacks on people he’s supposed to be courting or justifying a supposed refusal to do things he finds himself actually unable to do(raise a billion dollars). More than anything he’s attacking almost everyone but the person he’s running against—and that, not terribly effectively.
The sheer shambles of Trump’s campaign is difficult to overstate, and stands in sharp relief to the professionalism of the Clinton team. It’s not just that Trump has no ground game or data analysis, but that he doesn’t even see the need for them. Clinton, on the other hand, has inherited the legendary Obama team of 2008 and 2012, the undisputed modern masters of national campaigning. As Karl Rove wrote on Thursday, Trump doesn’t even have an ad strategy, while Clinton is already hammering away at him with ad buys in swing states.
Trump was able to wing it during the GOP primaries, where he faced a crowded field of opponents and a conservative base that responded to his ravings. But his shambolic, careening campaign is already alienating the general electorate like no other politician ever has.
According to a Washington Post poll, Trump has startlingly high negatives, being viewed unfavorably by 77 percent of women, 89 percent of Hispanics and 94 percent of African-Americans. It’s true that Clinton also has high negatives, but they aren’t in Trump’s league. Nobody’s are. As Greg Sergeant noted in The Washington Post, “there’s no real equivalence between the negative views of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. While Clinton certainly has problems in this regard, Trump fares far, far worse.”
Trump is viewed negatively by every major demographic group except non-college educated white men (who view him favorably, 56-42). This means that even groups that have voted Republican in most post-1964 elections—white women, college-educated whites—are hostile to Trump. By contrast, Clinton is viewed favorably by many groups, including women overall, non-whites, and Hispanics. Her negatives, unlike Trump’s, are offset by groups that actually like her.
Further boosting Clinton’s chances of a romp in November is the fact that pollsters may well be under-counting a key demographic that is strongly anti-Trump and pro-Clinton: Latinos. Because they have trouble canvassing Spanish-speaking households, pollsters tend to have trouble capturing the Latino vote. If this is true in this election as previously, then it’s likely that Clinton’s current lead is being underestimated by as much as 3 percent. Clinton was running about even with Bernie Sanders in the polls in California but ended up winning by 13 percent, thanks in large part to Latinos who went undetected by pollsters. Of course California is a special case, but Latinos are projected to rise to 17 percent of the electorate in 2016—and Trump couldn’t be doing more to mobilize them against him.
The reality of modern American politics is that it’s actually very difficult for ordinary Republicans or Democrats to lose by a landslide in national elections. A generic Republican would be running neck-in-neck with Clinton. (It’s hard to imagine any Republican who ran for president this year faring worse than Trump, except, perhaps, Ben Carson.) But Trump is no ordinary politician. He is running a train wreck of a campaign, has little patience for fund-raising, and can’t stop picking fights with leaders in his own party. He is loathed by a vast swath of the American people, and loved only by one faction of his own party. There’s every reason to think that Trump can pull off the near-impossible task of losing by more than 10 percent and possibly by much more. Moreover, as he continues to feud with members of his own party, he’ll drive down the value of the Republican brand so the party could end up losing both the Senate and the House. If he manages this feat, Trump will truly have left his mark on American politics.
Jeet Heer is a senior editor at the New Republic.